Any job involves dealing with people. Indeed, even in today’s high-tech world, where most tasks are completed with the help of technology, there is a high premium for social skills, such as emotional intelligence.
Computers have simplified complex problems, so the key challenge left for humans is to effectively manage people problems. This involves not only dealing with clients, but also colleagues.
Unsurprisingly, scientific research from the University of Bonn shows that in order to be successful at work you need to balance your desire to get ahead with your ability to get along. If you focus too much on the former, you will come across as pushy and greedy, and others will despise you. If you focus too much on the latter, you may end up having many friends at work but at the expense of stagnating in your career.
Managing the tension between getting along and getting ahead is particularly important if you have leadership aspirations. Psychologist Robert Hogan defined leadership as "getting along to get ahead," and he put forward a Darwinian framework for understanding why some people are more successful than others.
According to Hogan’s socioanalytic theory, people evolved as group-living animals, which is why we are incapable of surviving without the presence and support of others. In fact, even our sense of identity—the person we think we are—depends on what other people make of us.
At the same time, all groups have a power hierarchy with a leader, who is responsible for the survival of the group. Thus one of the key roles of the leader is to keep the group united and to eliminate in-group fighting so that the group can compete as one true entity against other groups.
When leaders fail to achieve this, the group is weakened and vulnerable, and its survival is seriously at risk. This metaphor can be used to understand the dynamics of organizations in the business world: The more internal fractions there are in a company, the more political and self-destructive the culture will be, making the organization fragile.
Leadership can therefore be understood as the process that enables teams to get ahead of rival teams, but a prerequisite for this is that the team members first get along with each other. And for leaders to gain the legitimate power to achieve this, they need to first be able to advance their careers without antagonizing their colleagues.
In other words, once leaders can master the art of getting along to get ahead, they can help their teams outperform their competitors.
This process applies as much to businesses as it does to the army, sport teams, rock bands, and many other group dynamics. Despite the apparent diversity of all these groups, the key characteristics of effective leaders—that is, the people most likely to help their teams succeed—are rather similar. They mostly stand out for their higher emotional intelligence, their better judgment, their integrity, and their team-building ability.
It’s important to understand that although we all want to get ahead and get along, there are significant differences in the degree to which we are driven to fulfill our status and affiliation needs.
These differences are a function of our personality, and they are manifested quite early in life.
The main implication is that some people are naturally more interested in maintaining good interpersonal relationships, whereas others are much more focused on advancing their careers and achieving.
Clearly, not everybody will be a leader, but it’s important to understand that, at the same time, not everybody wants to be a leader, and many people would be rather unhappy if they were put in a position of leadership.
It’s a rather sad state of affairs that our obsession for glorifying leaders has turned non-leaders into second-class citizens, as if they were failed human beings. Life, within organizations and beyond, revolves around teams, and we should only praise leaders if they have helped to make their teams better.
As Lao Tzu wisely noted: "A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim is fulfilled, they will say: We did it ourselves."